Every now and then you can find Hollywood celebrities and big film crews in and around the city of Budapest. Last month, for example Tom Hanks was spotted during the making of the new ‘Da Vinci Code’ film and Ridley Scott just left the country after completing ‘The Martian’, an upcoming sci-fi film starring Matt Damon.
Budapest has been called the ‘New Hollywood’ by numerous foreign papers because of the friendly tax regulations and cheap production costs for the crewmembers. When the story doesn’t take place in Budapest, it doesn’t matter as the city can be easily disguised as another city. The diverse architectural styles make Budapest an ideal hiding place for aspects of European cities like Moscow (Die Hard and Red Heat), London (Being Julia), The Rite (Rome) or even Argentina (Evita).
Location scout and production manager Gergó Bakos has helped me explain why Budapest is so popular as a filming location and how filmmakers create the illusion of taking place in another city by describing his job for me. The young Hungarian production manager works independently in and around the city of Budapest, but manages to be involved in 300 commercials and feature films a year. As a location scout, Gergó cruises around the city on his motorcycle to make a database for all the locations production different companies can use.
“Usually I am connected to a job before it even starts, since we work in a service production” gergó explains when asked about his job.
“When I start with scouting I get a script and a list containing the description of locations, so I’ll know where to look. My team and I then start to go through databases [a couple of thousand photos of Hungary], we’ll have to go to the library to read up on the architecture of the desired location and we need to have a lot of connections with every major institution in the country. For example, a current client needs an orthodox church as a location. Since my knowledge about churches is limited, I’ll have to ring the Archbishop’s pressman. Because he can profit from the rent and fees of the chosen location, he will help me. This is the same with the army.”
During my stay in Budapest, Gergó showed me around and we visited a variety of locations where iconic films were shot, like the Hollywood films Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Munich and It’s a Good Day to Die Hard. Although the diversity of the city helps a lot:
“For one production I had to disguise Hungary as six different cities. Italy and Berlin weren’t hard to do. Japan was a difficult assignment, but we eventually found a nearby lake with very small houses.”
The production manager taught me a couple of ground rules for his occupation, while we were walking in an area of Budapest that vaguely resembles sober Dutch architecture, and where the Dutch production ‘Het Bombardement’ was shot:
“Budapest has 23 districts. We use the central districts for historical films because the classical buildings are so well reserved. The outer districts we use for World War movies since you can still see the decay of the 40’s around here. If you move even further towards the ghetto you’ll find old boring blocks of the communist regime. Perfect for Cold War films. The attention to detail is also important”, says Gergó while pointing at the cobblestoned streets. “In most eastern and southern European cities the formations of these stones are arched. When we had to film for a Dutch production like ‘Kenau‘, we had to look for straight cobblestoned pavements that you can find in your country.”
This attention to details should be required for productions with small budgets. The Hollywood productions don’t have to bother. The huge budgets of individual movies and the lack of European knowledge of the American viewer ensures that the production crews don’t have to worry about abundance of space or that a familiar building in the background that doesn’t belong in the fictional city of London or Paris will ruin the movie going experience.
Cars with full engine blocks don’t fly so easily.
“For the Die Hard film they just shut down the entire street and had to pay for all the parking spaces that were no longer available. In the film you see the grey truck crashing in to all the cars. These were actually used but fully functional cars. They did empty the cars to collect useable parts but also to make the cars lighter. Cars with full engine blocks don’t fly so easily.”
Domestic versus foreign
In more recent years Budapest has been crowded with foreign Hollywood production in the streets and at the massive Korda Studios just outside of town. Since the reorganization of the Hungarian film funds in 2011, the government promises a 25 percent tax reduction for foreign productions as long as eighty percent of the film is shot in Hungary. Although the film crewmembers have a lot more work and the film fund has a more focused budget, you could wonder if the domestic film industry is also flourishing. When the Hungarian producer Andrew G. Vajna renewed the industry in 2011, a lot of idealistic directors felt Vajna replaced the intellectual cinema of Hungary for more commercial projects, both domestic and international.
According to Gábor Váradi, a small-time independent filmmaker, this intellectual cinema originated from the time Budapest was still under Soviet control:
“During the communist era, all the filmmakers were united within the programme of making quality films where idealism would be preferred over making a profit” Gábor explains.
“A small, but professional group, consisted of a proud profession. When the wall fell in 1989, the focused crew scattered and no longer had the means of making the films that they wanted to make.”
The Architecture in film
Hungarian filmmakers are also dissatisfied with seeing their city disguised. Levente Polyák, researcher and urban planner, is one of the organizers of the Budapest Architecture Film Days, a recently finished film festival that focuses on the architecture of cities in films. Polyák claims that, while American viewers, probably won’t mind the false locations, a Hungarian or an Argentinian, for example, will be sucked out of the movie experience when they see the Budapest Opera House in the background of Evita.
“For the festival we wanted to show films that have a city or iconic place as a main character. The aesthetic shots of the city not only give a great sense of beauty but also promote the area like a postcard. The British film Withnail and I, for example, is widely known to having contributed to the gentrification of Camden Town. Since Budapest has been gaining popularity as a filming location, but never received as much respect. With our organization we work together with young filmmakers to give cities and architectural styles a place in the movies.”
Despite the criticism, the quality cinema of Budapest has been seeing a new dawn. Liza the Fox Fairy, a Hungarian black comedy released in 2015, was seen in the cinema by over a 150.000 people. A big number, considering the high-ticket prices and the general low income of the civilians. White God, a horror film about wild dogs, found international recognition at the Cannes Film Festival. The problem is that foreign audiences have limited knowledge of the beauty of Budapest and the country. A problem that could be solved when the movies would pay the attention to the city that it deserves.